"Here in this hole that we have fixed/We get further and further and further from what/We must do." So sings Chan Marshall in a slurry/sleepy voice on "In This Hole," the emotional centerpiece, and the only self-penned number, on The Covers Record. The album's already being dubbed "Chan Gets Difficult and Plays Just Guitar and Piano" among music scribes, and her label isn't even promoting it per se, hoping for word-of-mouth sales while awaiting the notoriously flaky Marshall -- indiedom's Fiona Apple -- to get on with her next "real" set.
To date, Marshall has been relatively candid about her struggles with intense stage fright, spiritual crises and a family history of mental illness. What else is new among artists? In the past, both Mark Lanegan and Nick Cave emerged from stints in rehab and issued their own excellent covers records (last year's I'll Take Care of You and 1986's Kicking Against the Pricks, respectively). So if Marshall's chased her personal demons off but needs to take a therapeutic break from the ego-intensive act of songwriting, bully for her.
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She kicks things off manifestolike with everyone's favorite anticonformity anthem, "Satisfaction," a wonderfully blasphemous reading -- think Sinéad O'Connor ripping up a photo of Mick Jagger -- sharing naught but lyrics and a tiny semblance of original melody with the Stones original. From there she chronicles her nagging, fateful sense of shame with gonzo folkie Michael Hurley's desolate blues "The Devil's Daughter"; manages to locate a tiny island of happiness with Lou Reed's latter-day Velvets ode "I Found a Reason"; and even celebrates how fleeting, but precious, that happiness can be in an uncharacteristically joyful torch ballad, "Wild Is the Wind" (a tune most closely identified with Nina Simone). Along the way, she tackles Moby Grape, Smog, Flatt & Scruggs, even Dylan (twice, with a pair of super-obscuros nicked from The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3), and while it's tempting to continue with the lyrical psychoanalysis, only Marshall (or her hairdresser) really knows for sure what she's aiming at.
Besides, this record is only as difficult as inscrutability is worrisome; the music's stripped-down starkness comprises its inherent beauty. The song mentioned in the first paragraph may not be a signal from Marshall -- she's already got a tune called "Schizophrenia's Weighted Me Down" in her back catalogue -- since it's technically also a cover, originally on her '96 album What Would the Community Think and now transposed from guitar to piano as a more elegant, nuanced and reflective number. Vocally, too, she's quite a stylist, serving up improbable blue notes, taut-wire quavers and affected drawls like a seasoned scat singer. So, yeah, Marshall just might be crazy, but as an artist skillfully channeling her emotions, she's crazy like a fox.